I’d like to tell a few stories that come from a few library resources, and what they mean when you put them all together.
Story number one is from Oliver Sacks’ incredible book Seeing Voices. Seeing Voices is broken up into two parts—the first of which deals with the history of American Sign Language and the struggle for language acquisition among Deaf children before its inception. One part that stood out for me was the suppression of Sign and the locking out of Deaf persons from some (ergo catastrophic) decision making about Deaf education near to the end of the 19th century; “More and more, English became the language of instruction for Deaf students, taught by hearing teachers, fewer and fewer of whom knew any sign language at all.” The second half of the book is about the fight for a Deaf president at Gallaudet University. If you haven’t heard of it, Gallaudet was the first Deaf university in the world and it’s a pretty big deal. The first Deaf president of the school, I. King Jordan, came into power in 1988. But here’s the story I most wanted to share from this book, it’s about two prelingually Deaf boys: Joseph (age 11), and Manuel (age 9). Both boys had reached (what in context was) an advanced age to have reached without learning any language—they were preteens, and completely languageless. In the first case, Joseph was overlooked in his own family (regarded as unintelligent, with “no real attempt” ever taken to teach him language). In the second case, although there was still a hefty communication barrier, Manuel “was much loved by his parents and older siblings and trusted by them with all sorts of tasks.” When both of these boys were given the chance to enter the world of language via formal education, Manuel learned Sign rapidly; “there was doubt as to whether he would acquire language fluidly at his age, but he has done brilliantly, and in three months, has already acquired fair sign and fair Italian, loves both languages, loves communicating, and is full of questions, and curiosity, and intellectual vitality.” For Joseph, the going was slow, and language acquisition came more strenuously. Although he did develop some Sign and was good with visual problems, he was not able to formulate questions, let alone formulate responses to them (one couldn’t ask him what he had done over the weekend, for example):
In 2007, the Washington Post published a (now-famous) article called Pearls Before Breakfast. On January 12th of that year, a busker stood playing the violin at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, earning just over 32 dollars for a performance that was passed by nearly 1100 people. While a few people did stop to listen for at least a minute (7 in all, out of over 1000), most ignored the musician entirely—with one very noteworthy, categorical exception. According to Stinson’s wonderful book, The Man With the Violin, there was one demographic that did not behave like the rest; each time that a child passed the violinist, they tried to stop—tugging on a parent’s arm and so forth—and in every case, the adult hurried them along. What those commuters did not know was that the man playing the violin was Joshua Bell, one of the most masterful violinists in the world. They didn’t know that he had recently played a local concert—sold out—where even mediocre seats sold for over a hundred dollars a ticket. They probably wouldn’t have guessed that the music he was playing that day was one of the most difficult pieces ever written, or that the violin he was playing on was handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713—purchased for nearly 4 million dollars and never refinished.
“He made this to perfect thickness at all parts,” Bell says, pivoting it. “If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound.” No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.
Chances are, the children did not know any of this either, but they did know something that the adults did not: that this humble-looking artist was eminently worthy of their time and attention, and that the music he was making was beautiful. I love this story, and I love that Kathy Stinson created the book, The Man with the Violin, inspired by this real-life social experiment. While officially targeted at younger children, it would be an excellent book to read to a group of teens or pre-teens to spark a discussion about recognizing beauty and how we ascribe value (wearing an expensive suit on a stage = worth a $100 ticket / wearing a ball cap and standing on the pavement = not worth the time). All of this is to say that after The Man With the Violin, I didn’t believe I would ever again stumble upon a picture book that so eloquently portrayed the power of music and the elevated ability of children to recognize beauty and to be inspired by it. I was wrong.
“In 2018, we conducted a massive global study around happy memories at the Happiness Research Institute… ‘Please describe one of your happy memories,’ we asked… We received more than a thousand answers from all over the world [seventy-five countries]… However, despite the diversity in sources, I could relate to every happy memory. I understood why each moment was a happy memory for that person. We might be Danish, Korean or South African, but we are first and foremost human.”
—-Meik Wiking, The Art of Making Memories (2019)
Meik Wiking has a new book and it’s all about memories! Just released on the first of the month, here are three reasons why I decided to get my hands (and ears) on it as soon as possible:
- Wiking’s books are a stellar combination of pop culture tie-ins, research snapshots (that generally seem to flesh out the best of what the scientific method has to offer), personal stories and insights, earnest thoughts, and good humour. They give due credit to the notion that books matter for human health and happiness (as we shall soon read).
- His books are visually splendid—I love the art, I love the way the parts are broken up into approachable, digestible pieces, and I even love the font.
- Wiking narrates his own audiobooks and has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard. The production quality of past books has been excellent, with small musical compositions that fit the mood of the books with tasteful ease. I have genuinely been brought to laughter now and then on the long commute to work, which has been both surprising and cheering.
If you are not as yet convinced that Wiking may be worth the read, I humbly offer this excerpt from his previous title, The Little Book of Lykke: